It’s good to “take account” of where you come from. That’s one of the messages Graves whispered in my ear. But what does that mean? For Graves, it meant really knowing the river and the land he grew up on, the fish and fowl, the people’s stories, including the story of “The People,” the Comanche term for their tribe. It meant returning to the Brazos, the river of his youth. So I was going to return to mine.
I grew up in Victoria, and the stretch of the Guadalupe that flows through the town’s Riverside Park was a frequent playground for my sisters and me; our parents would hold our hands as we stood in the current, toddlers dazzled by sun-lit water rushing against our legs. This muddy river named in 1689 for the patron saint of Mexico—Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe—was my childhood taste of Graves’ “old pull” toward the green and living things, the raw and the wild. I left Victoria when I was 16, but now I am back, this time in a boat, John Graves-style.
“What you are doing, going to be on the river, that is what brought people here, why any of this is here,” Gary Dunnam, the former head of the Victoria County Heritage Department, told me when I visited him just before our trip. The Guadalupe is the area’s history, Dunnam explained. It’s why the Karankawas, Aranamas, Tamiques, and Tonkawas were here, followed by the Spaniards who tried with mixed results to Christianize the tribes in the early 1700s. Then, in 1824, after Mexico won independence from Spain, the wealthy Mexican empresario Martín De León came to the river after receiving a colonization grant from Mexico. He brought 41 families with him and named the settlement Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria in honor of the first president of Mexico. De León, 6 feet tall with a dashing mustache, was the sole Mexican empresario in the region until he died in a cholera epidemic in 1833. His wife, Doña Patricia de la Garza, and their large extended family continued to preside over life in Victoria until they were forced into exile in 1836 after the Mexican defeat at San Jacinto, even though they had supported the Texas Revolution.
Would I find traces of this tangled history on the river? Or would I find alligators and snakes dangling from trees, as my mom had warned? The unknown loomed. I did know, however, that it would be foolish for me—all eagerness and no experience—to do it alone. So I asked Chris Carson and John Hewlett, two friends and ardent canoeists, to join me. Chris is a photographer who seems to spend more time on water than on land. John is a school principal and outdoor adventurer who founded the Austin-based gear company, Gusto Outfitters—its cooling neck wraps, called “bandos,” would become our second skins on the river.
Writer Clayton Maxwell returns to her childhood river, the Guadalupe.
On a hot Saturday mid-morning, we unload at an RV park 9 miles south of Cuero. After multiple trips from van to boat, the canoes are teetering with the weight of two coolers, waterproof boxes with iPhones and GPS devices, tents and sleeping bags, yellow dry sacks stuffed with clothes and first-aid supplies, fishing gear, a camping stove, provisions ranging from breakfast taco fixings to Chris’ favorite jalapeño sausages, mezcal and whiskey, and a very important tube of WaterWeld epoxy that would save our trip when one canoe sprang a leak.
Chris has even brought pillows. “I get a lot of hell for it,” he says, “But what can I say? I’m a pillow guy.” Graves might have cringed, although his own canoe weighed 200 pounds thanks to what he called “unnecessaries,” including a gun, an ax, and a lantern. Graves laments that he, too, falls short of Henry David Thoreau’s call for simplicity. Just hauling and strapping down all of our own “unnecessaries” makes us sweat before we’ve even begun paddling. Sticky in the late morning sun, we take our baptismal swim in the Guadalupe, eyes alert for Harvey-displaced gators. Hallelujah, the river is far cooler and fresher than we’d thought; it’s an elixir, a fatigue-conquering mood-lifter. This river is going to be good to us.
Now we paddle. Up in the bow, I have it easy. John’s son Harlon, whose nickname is Huckle for Huckleberry Finn, rests in the middle on a pile of tents and sleeping bags. John is our captain in the back. Devoted fishermen Chris and his 9-year-old son, Max, linger behind, poles in the water. There is no other soul on this quiet stretch of river, and we are in the flow of it, gliding downstream with “the waxen slim strength of a paddle’s shaft,” as Graves’s writes, on “a drifting, sparkling, sunlit afternoon.”
I am surprised by many things: the swiftness of the current, a bald eagle flashing across the sky—my first eagle sighting in South Texas—but mostly by the beauty. The section of river that I knew in Riverside Park, as I’d remembered it, was not particularly pretty. But before the trip, I chatted over chalupas with Gerry Wyant, owner of Gerry’s Kayaks in Riverside Park. Gerry rents kayaks for river trips and runs a hot dog stand (currently under renovation due to damage from Harvey) near the Texas Zoo in the park. Gerry shared many tips about canoeing that section of the Guadalupe—most notably that he’d never heard of any skirmishes with alligators. He also said the section of river we’d be on is the prettiest stretch of the Guadalupe there is. I see now he’s right. It’s the cypresses. They line the river here, faintly mystical with their knobby roots, which Harlon calls “dragon’s teeth.”
“We will be nearly finished, I think, when we stop understanding the old pull toward green things and living things.”
So we paddle on. With a lift of the shoulders and a twist of the spine, our paddles cut liquid and we glide. As Graves writes, “I had the feel of the river now, and the boat, and the country, and all of it was long-ago familiar.” With the elaborate map-studying, weather-prognosticating, and other preparations over, we sink into the state of observation that a river invites. Eyes on the water, the banks, the sky—there is much to notice. A kingfisher skims the river. An alligator gar, at least 5 feet long, jumps out of the water and twists its toothy maw right in my face. I startle, and the boat wobbles, my first rookie move so far. Wobbling can mean tipping the boat. All of Chris’ camera gear, everything we need, is in these canoes. Tipping, Chris repeats often, is not an option.
When the heat threatens, we dip our bandos in the river to keep cool and shield our necks from the sun. When possible, we make a landing and jump in. Six-year-old Harlon, whose spirit animal must be an otter, is happiest in the water. So when we first find a clean sandbar with a riffle flowing past, he and John demo for me how to do “a float.” We make ourselves straight as logs skimming over rocks until we get to a safe landing spot and trudge up to shore—all smiles—to do it again.
Before the sun dips low, we find our camp spot, a sandy island we soon discover is black with vultures in the trees and sky. Chris slaps his paddle on the water, and the piercing shotgun sound scares them away. “Vulture Island” is now our home for the night. The boys gather firewood, Max catches spiky little hellgrammites—the larvae of a dobsonfly—that he will later use to catch catfish, while Chris, or “Cooky,” gets busy with dinner, which tonight is canned bean chili.